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Voting in a divided country

The midterm elections in the United States will be a vote of (no) confidence in president Trump and his divisive leadership style, says Brendan Carroll, assistant professor Public Administration. In this blog he explains why voter turnout can be a decisive factor.

On 6 November Americans will line up at polling stations across the country, log into online voting systems or submit paper or digital ballots to select their preferred candidates in thousands of individual federal, state, and local contests for US and state Senators and Representatives, state governors, city councilors, school committee members and a myriad of other elected positions ranging from state circuit court judges to county coroners. Of these many contests, the two of most interest to the greatest number of people will be the US Senate and House of Representative elections. The 2018 midterm election, so-called because it occurs midway through a four-year presidential term, will determine who will control the country’s legislative branch. Following the 2016 presidential election, which was like no other in the country’s history, this midterm will be watched by many around the world.

More polarized than ever

The American political landscape and the broader American society appear more polarized than ever before. Citizens discontent with ‘politics as usual’ across a number of issues - from the country’s immigration policies to its role in a globalized world - found their champion in the unconventional candidate Donald Trump. From the time of his candidacy to now, midway through his term, he has rallied his supporters and incensed his opponents with his policies and rhetoric. No matter how the midterm elections turn out, they will be interpreted as vote of (no) confidence in the president and his divisive leadership style.

Voter turnout

Although much is anticipated about this election and much will be commented upon once all the votes have been counted, there are two important things to keep in mind when interpreting the election in this way. The first is a general point about voter turnout and is easy to observe. Compared to most other developed democracies, few voters turn out to vote in America. And compared to presidential elections, midterm elections witness even lower turnout rates. The galvanizing presence of Donald Trump and the efforts on both sides of the aisle to excite voters may push voters to turn out in relatively higher numbers for a midterm election, but there will still remain a sizable minority whose views will not be expressed in the ballot box.

Voter registration laws

Characterizing this minority raises a second, more uncertain point. Among the large minority who will not vote, some of these will have chosen not to vote even if they could do so with relative ease. But there will also likely be a large number of individuals who would have voted had they not been discouraged in one way or another through voter registration laws and other policies that make it difficult for some citizens to cast their ballots. Young voters and others who have not voted before may lack sufficient knowledge of the process to turn up at the right place and time. Minorities and the poor may face difficulties reaching polling places outside their neighborhoods and far from public transportation or may lack the increasingly specific forms of identification required in some jurisdictions. Although their voices are equally important in a free and fair society, they are less likely to be heard on election day. And as raised above, much is at stake here: returning Republican majorities to both houses of Congress would signal a continued mandate for Donald Trump and his policies, but a Democratic majority in at least the House would put a break on his efforts.

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